Retro Review: ‘Grave of the Fireflies’
In an episode of MASH once, “Hawkeye” Pierce disputed a popular saying by pointing out that war is in fact NOT hell. Because in hell only those guilty suffer whereas in war everyone suffers even the innocent. Proof of this can be seen in the powerful 1988 anime film, Grave of the Fireflies, from the legendary Studio Ghibli. This is a war movie which instead of focusing on soldiers and fighting, puts all of its attention on a young boy, Seita and his little sister Setsuko. Two children who suffer as victims during the Second World War despite them never participating in this global conflict.
Viewers are hit with an emotional punch from the start as our main character, Seita is found in a subway station having starved to death. From there we see in flashback the tragic tale of how he arrived at this moment. With their father serving in World War II, it falls to Seita and his younger sister Setsuko to care for their ailing mother and prepare their home as best as they can from inevitable raid from the nearby American bombers. When this attack does happen, they are caught off-guard by the use of incendiary explosives instead of traditional bombs, which kills their mother. The two children are only able to salvage a small tin of candy as they head to an aunt’s house for refuge. As food becomes scarce, the aunt becomes abusive and it is not long before the two are once again forced to seek shelter elsewhere. Seita and Setsuko find an old bomb shelter to remain in for a while. Despite their bleak circumstances, the siblings find source of happiness in the form of fireflies who provide light to them. It is not long before young Setsuko dies of malnutrition, leaving her older brother alone to await his fate. Though we see the two siblings reunited in the afterlife with a swarm of fireflies, it provides little comfort to those who have just experienced this heartbreaking ordeal.
Many have stated that if you are not reduced to a blubbering emotional mess after a viewing Grave of the Fireflies you are void of human emotions. I agree wholeheartedly, I have seen this film on a couple of different occasions and each time I have to emotionally and mentally prepare myself for what I am about to watch. Nonetheless I firmly believe this is a movie everybody must see at least once in their lives, especially those in power, as it shows the true cost of war. Author Akiyuki Nosaka, based the source material off of a true event and long held that no film could truly capture the devastated war-torn setting needed to adapt the story. When director Isao Takahata approached the author, he proved that through animation they could finally make this story into a feature film. Oddly enough, Takahata has denied that Grave of the Fireflies is an anti-war movie, but rather a story of two siblings trying to survive while isolated from a larger society. But this does not change the fact that the director refuses to shy away from the horrors of war. There is one moment in particular, when the children discover the war is over, which in most movies is treated with a sense of relief if not joy, but in this film it has no impact on our characters and in fact coincides with things becoming worse. Despite how I may be portraying it, Grave of the Fireflies is not a depressing drudge to get through. Isao Takahata is able to capture an innocent and child-like spirit in this film which is perfectly fitting. From the very beginning the orphans at the center of this movie endear themselves to you as you become completely invested in their plight. The abuse and suffering the siblings endure make the moments where they can have fun and watch the fireflies that much more uplifting for the audience.
Believe what you will about anime as a style or genre, but it is impossible to deny the power of Grave of the Fireflies. Esteemed film critic, Roger Ebert claimed that this movie caused him to reconsider what is possible through animated storytelling. While the movie and the narrative it tells is nothing short of heartbreaking it is an incredible film that will no doubt leave doubt stick with viewers. Sure there are bleak moments of grief but there are also moments of beauty providing light in the darkness.